Creating an Action Plan: ToR and External Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 10, 2019

When conducting a workplace investigation, it is crucial to be able to demonstrate that appropriate procedures have been followed. This is essential in defending any subsequent action that may be taken. 

It can be helpful for employers to create an action plan utilising Terms of Reference (ToR) and the services of an external investigator to keep the investigation process on track. 

3 Key principles for drafting the tor

The ToR is a framework that provides structure and a plan for the investigation. Without it, an investigation runs the risk of becoming too broad or unwieldy. There are three basic guiding principles for employers to keep in mind when drafting the ToR. 

1. Reason

This sets out why an investigation is necessary, which people are anticipated to be involved (at least the complainant and respondent) and the key questions which need to be answered as a result of the investigation. 

2. Remit

The remit section provides the parameters for the investigator's involvement and identifies what the investigator is supposed to do. 

In certain circumstances, the investigator will be required simply to engage in a fact-finding mission, in order to collate information for the employer to make a final determination or outcome. Alternatively, an investigator may be tasked with dispute resolution, or even providing disciplinary recommendations. 

This section can also identify what, if anything, is 'off limits'. For example, an investigator may be prohibited from having access to commercially sensitive information. 

However, it's also important to note that an investigator will be hampered if there are too many restrictions placed on them. 

3. Report

This practical aspect of the ToR identifies in what format the final report is to be provided. The due date and expected distribution list should also be noted in the ToR.

In order to maximise the success of the investigation, the TOR should be drafted as soon as possible after a decision has been made to investigate a complaint.

Why appoint an external investigator? 

Even the most experienced HR professional may struggle to undertake a completely unbiased investigation. Cross allegations and accusations of unfairness can cloud issues and throw the investigation off-track. 

By outsourcing investigations of this nature, employers can prevent any perceived or actual apprehension of bias. External investigators are impartial, and in some cases, better able to conduct an objective investigation than someone internal. 

An external investigator is particularly helpful in circumstances where: 

  • The organisation requiring an investigator is small and all staff are well known to each other.
  • The allegations requiring investigation are particularly egregious, serious or even traumatic.
  • There is potential for criminal or civil proceedings to arise out of the investigation.
  • Senior management or HR staff are directly involved in the complaint, whether as respondents or complainants. 

External investigators also have a level of experience and expertise that can be difficult to match in-house. Even with clear ToR, an internal investigator may find investigating the allegation and writing the final report challenging. 

Appointing an external investigator can also save time. Often, the person chosen to head an investigation internally, will also still have their core duties to perform.

Engaging an external investigator

When you engage an external investigator, it's a good idea to write a letter of appointment/engagement. This should set out clear instructions and confirm the scope of the investigator's role. The ToR should also be included. 

If you require assistance in defining the scope of your investigation, or would like to engage an expert to tackle workplace matters requiring investigation, our investigators are committed to dealing with complaints independently, providing expeditious, thorough investigations with integrity. Visit our website or contact WISE to find out more. 

Workplace Bullying: Observations from Our Investigators

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Like schoolyard bullying, workplace bullying is far from a new phenomenon. When people who may not have much in common outside work are thrust together on a daily basis, there are bound to be disputes, friction and potentially even outright hostility. 

Of course, any serious matters need to be dealt with by conducting a thorough workplace investigation. Recently, our investigators have noticed a number of trends in workplace bullying during the course of their work. 

We are seeing more bullying in the not-for-profit sector, a rise in false or malignant allegations of bullying, and increasing use of workers' compensation claims during the investigation process. 

increase in bullying allegations in the non-profit sector

There have perhaps been less instances of workplace bullying in the non-profit sector than in the more cutthroat 'for profit' world. However, investigators are noticing that these organisations seem to be experiencing an upturn in bullying allegations. 

This might be because many boards have recognised that, despite their non-profit nature, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain a viable entity without a certain degree of commercial acumen. This often results in the hiring of personnel from more traditional commercial roles, which in turn flows through to a change of management style and a shake-up of the way things have always been done.

Existing staff may perceive these types of changes as 'bullying'. It is therefore important that any measures taken by the organisation, such as performance management or disciplinary proceedings can be demonstrated to be 'reasonable management action'. 

false allegations of bullying

False complaints of bullying also seem to be on the rise. A classic example here could be a situation where a team member has been advised by their manager that they are being informally performance managed and can shortly expect a formal process to commence. That team member may attempt to avoid the - appropriate - disciplinary action by claiming that they are being bullied by the manager. 

In other cases, the bullied may turn out to be the bully - making allegations as a defence against potential complaints.      

worker's compensation

Another trend observed by WISE investigators involves staff who are being investigated for their conduct claiming workers' compensation, perhaps for stress leave or mental health issues arising from workplace bullying or harassment. 

Although there are certainly instances of legitimate workers' compensation claims in these circumstances, it can also be a way for employees to maintain their income and ensure their continued employment while an investigation takes place. 

This is because, regardless of the outcome of any investigation into the employee's conduct and any determination made as a result, no disciplinary action can be taken until the lengthy workers' compensation process is complete. 

This can be frustrating for employers, who are hamstrung in their ability to follow through on reasonable and necessary management actions as a result of staff who may be attempting to circumvent the system and avoid termination.

WISE has been a national provider of workplace investigation services for over 29 years and has assisted countless organisations through the formal processes. Our highly skilled team has the experience to help organisations navigate the challenging issue of investigating workplace misconduct and internal grievances. We are experienced with dealing with all types of misconduct, including bullying and harassment claims, providing our clients a level of comfort that the process can be relied upon to ensure it is procedurally fair, and false allegations or delay tactics are identified quickly and the matter resolved.             

Why Counter Allegations Must Be Investigated

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

In the usual course of workplace investigations, it is often one person's word against another's. This is particularly the case when a serious allegation such as sexual misconduct has been made, and there are unlikely to be any witnesses to the event. 

When a serious allegation has been made, often the 'accused' then makes their own claims against the accuser, resulting in cross and counter-allegations.

the difficulty this causes for investigators

Occasionally, counter allegations are made immediately after the investigation is made known to the respondent, and this can make it more difficult for even the most experienced investigator to determine the true course of events leading up to that point. Counter-allegations also sometimes surface once an investigation is already in progress, making it harder for investigators to discern whether they are legitimate or simply made with the objective of revenge. 

The most important thing is that each allegation should be investigated independently. 

the danger of not investigating counter complaints 

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission demonstrates the importance of ensuring that all allegations are thoroughly and independently investigated, regardless of the circumstances in which they are made. 

In the decision of Watts v Ramsay Health Care it was determined that an employer's failure to investigate complaints of bullying was in itself a form of bullying. 

In these circumstances, Ms Watts repeatedly advised her employer that she was feeling harassed and bullied by her peers, including her co-workers making accusations of Ms Watts smoking cigarettes past her allocated break, smelling of alcohol and failing to perform her duties adequately. 

Ms Watts raised those concerns in the context of a formal investigation by her employers into her own conduct. 

However, her employers failed to investigate Ms Watts' counter complaints on the basis that there was insufficient information and evidence to support Ms Watts' allegations, against a background where she did not name the offenders. 

The Fair Work Commission ultimately determined the failure to investigate the bullying investigations was an inappropriate and unreasonable management decision, and a breach of the employer's own discrimination, bullying and harassment policy.

what are the key lessons?

Perhaps the most important aspect of undertaking fair workplace investigations is ensuring that internal policies are followed, in particular focusing on:

  • Determining and implementing the threshold requirement for commencing an investigation, for instance requiring a formal written complaint before management action can be taken;
  • Being flexible in interpreting the information provided and not imposing arbitrary minimum standards, for instance requiring direct evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Taking into account the context surrounding the making of the allegations. 

 Employers and management should also ensure that they do not make early judgments or allow themselves to be biased in the context in which the allegations are made. In the case of Ms Watts, for example, her employers appear to have judged her allegations on the basis that they were made during the course of her own performance management process. 

It can be challenging for investigators when presented with counter-allegations. If you want to ensure that you are undertaking investigations effectively, WISE provides a range of skills-based short courses for investigators, or formal qualifications such as Certificate IV and Diploma in Government Investigations.

How to Write a Robust Workplace Investigation Report

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 05, 2018

At the conclusion of a workplace investigation, the investigator has the challenging task of pulling together all relevant material into a cohesive report. The style of report that is chosen will be firmly linked to the purpose of the investigation, keeping in mind the requirements of the readers and users of the document. 

Investigators need to consider closely the manner in which findings are made and how best to share findings with key parties in a clear and appropriate manner. The outcome of a workplace investigation and report might well be that mediation and/or other processes are indicated as next steps. The tasks of drafting, writing and communicating a workplace investigation report are all crucial parts of the process.

whAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE REPORT?

Any investigation report must provide a clear and unbiased summary of the process and outcomes of an investigation. This is a document that leaves nothing to guesswork when it comes to describing the background, methodology, parties involved, timeline of events, policies and findings that have arisen across the entire timespan of the investigative process. 

It can be tempting for an organisation to decide during an investigation not to obtain a report, and to keep any outcomes 'informal'. However, if there are adverse outcomes for one or more parties, a transparent report will be the best way to prevent any future claims of unfair process. 

the style of report

No two investigation reports will have exactly the same style, the author, allegations, organisation type and specific circumstances all lend a unique nature to a report. Yet some common themes can be found in all high-quality investigations. 

Firstly, the report should be written in professional plain English. A variety of readers should be able to interpret the report - without recourse to a thesaurus! In-house descriptors and acronyms can be used, but these must first be defined or form part of a comprehensive glossary. Clear contents and a logical progression from index and executive summary through to scope, methodology, evidence, discussion, findings and recommendations will also assist any audience to understand the document. 

making findings

All findings made in an investigation report must be supported by the facts. If the facts are established, the investigator needs to determine what policy and/or law have been breached by the conduct. Once these elements are established, they must be communicated effectively and clearly in the written report. 

As with the report's overall style, findings should be logical. The report cannot simply list evidence then move to findings. Careful and reasoned explanation is needed of both the process of analysis and the deliberations undertaken by the investigator. 

This includes explaining what and why certain weighting was given to particular parts of the evidence, or why an interviewee might have been persuasive or unpersuasive on a particular point. Making clear findings is often harder than it might at first appear. Similarly, clearly reflecting the author's final thoughts in a clear and concise manner, making the report user friendly for all readers, is a challenging yet essential part of making defensible findings. 

Informing Parties

One issue to consider closely is how the outcomes of the investigation, contained in the report, will be communicated to the participants. Given that witnesses have provided evidence in confidence, their privacy needs to be protected. 

Other questions which need to be considered when sharing the outcome of an investigation with parties include:

  • Could safety be in issue by the release of particular data?
  • Is the presence of a support person necessary?
  • Should the report be presented to all parties together at a meeting? 

While a report must be clear and comprehensive in all of the matters that formed part of the process, consideration should be given to the use, delivery and description of information provided during the workplace investigation. 

Moving on from a workplace investigation

A common recommendation is for parties involved in a workplace investigation to participate in mediation in relation to one or more issues. This is often the case where emotions have stalled effective interactions at work, or where a 'he said - she said' situation makes it impossible to make a clear finding on issues of fact.

It is important to establish if all issues warrant mediation, or if only a few can realistically be dealt with in this way. Who should conduct the mediation is an interesting topic in itself - and one for future discussion. Effective mediation can create resolution of the issues and, ideally, improve workplace relationships. Yet if such discussions fall through, it is important that the report itself will withstand any future scrutiny or review.

If you need assistance with conducting an investigation, contact WISE now or enrol in our popular and effective 'Conducting Workplace Investigations' training course.

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.